The Food and Drug Administration has proposed another set of regulations that, if implemented as written, will negatively affect many LocalHarvest farmers and could very well put some of them out of business. (Careful readers will recall a similar theme in last month’s LH newsletter concerning outdoor access for chickens; believe it or not, this is a separate issue.)
These proposed regulations fall under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the first overhaul to food safety rules in 75 years. For several years before its 2010 passage, farm and food activists worked hard to make sure that the law would address the known threats to food safety from industrialized agriculture, and differentiate between those activities and ones that are non-threatening. Thanks to their hard work, Congress passed an amendment exempting small-scale farmers, thus protecting them from overly burdensome regulations that shouldn’t apply to them. But that didn’t entirely work.
Sometimes ‘fair’ means that the same rules apply to everyone, but sometimes what is fair is to ask the people who engage in the riskiest activities to meet a higher standard than others. In the food system, the riskiest activities are those with a documented history of contamination leading to human illness. In the U.S., those products are bagged salads, sprouts, and much of what is grown downstream from confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs — aka feedlots). Bagged salads are risky because when the salad leaves are cut they become vulnerable to pathogens; putting these vulnerable greens in a sealed container and removing the oxygen creates an excellent environment for bacterial growth over time. Sprouts are risky because of a history of contaminated seeds and the lack of sufficient post-harvest safety checks. Irrigation water tainted by runoff from CAFOs may contaminate produce. Instead of focusing the regulations on these few problem areas, though, the FDA produced a set of rules strict enough to keep the high-risk products safe and applied it to all produce. According to The Cornucopia Institute, over 90% of the farmers to whom the regulations will apply do not produce these high-risk foods. Requiring them to abide by the same strict rules just isn’t fair.
Nor is it smart. Despite being so expensive to implement that the FDA itself predicts the new rules will put some small- and medium-scale produce farmers out of business, asking them to follow these rules is unlikely to make the food system any safer at all because these farmers are not the bad actors. Society will lose an unknowable number of good farmers for nothing, and good food will become harder to find. We think the government has a role in keeping the food system safe, but rules that put good farmers out of business and leave gaping holes in known problem areas is not wise governance.
Several organizations have developed excellent materials through which you can learn more about these proposed regulations and their impact. One good source is The Cornucopia Institute. If you really want to dig in, read their whitepaper on the food safety rules. Another good source is the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. They offer step by step instructions on how to submit a public comment and what to say. Finally, the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance offers an in-depth analysis, sample comments, and a downloadable PDF flyer that can be printed and distributed at farmers markets.
I hope that many of you will help protect LocalHarvest’s produce farmers by contacting the FDA before the November 15 deadline. Let them know that you want the FDA to create rules that don’t unfairly burden the small- and mid-scale farmers from whom you like to get your food. Good food — and good farmers — are worth protecting.